Canberra Times, Saturday 9 August 2008
by Philip Dorling
Forty-two-year-old Australian East Timorese citizen Angelita Pires remains in limbo.
Nearly six months have passed since her lover, rebel East Timorese military officer Alfredo Reinado, was killed, and President Jose Ramos Horta gravely wounded in a series of shootings in Dili on February 11, 2008.
Ramos Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao declared the events of February 11 to be nothing less than an attempted coup.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described the shootings, which also included an incident involving Gusmao’s car, to be “a coordinated attempt to assassinate the democratically elected leadership” of East Timor.
Reinado, an Australian-trained army officer, was on the run following the May 2006 mutiny within East Timor’s armed forces.
Pires was arrested six days after the February 11th2008 shootings. East Timorese Prosecutor-General Longuinhos Monteiro publicly accused her of conspiracy to murder the President and crimes against the state.
Pires faces possible charges that include a crime against the security of the state (punishable with up to 20 years imprisonment), double attempted homicide (up to 10 years imprisonment for each charge); and illegal use of arms to disturb the social peace (up to 20 years imprisonment).
Pires’ passports have been confiscated and she is confined to Dili where she is living in what amounts to a shack. She is unable to work or continue her legal studies at the National University of East Timor.
The daughter of an East Timorese mother and a Portuguese father, Pires left Dili with her family in 1975 and spent most of her life in Australia before returning to East Timor after the 1999 independence vote.
She worked for the United Nations Serious Crimes unit investigating human rights abuses during the Indonesian occupation and later took a UN-sponsored course on humanitarian law and conflict management.
In 2006 she became involved in legal matters relating to Reinado and began a relationship with the rebel major who was married and on the run from East Timorese and United Nations forces.
Isolated by her circumstances from both the East Timorese community and resident Australian expatriates, she has repeatedly expressed concern for her safety.
In a recent email to a family member Pires described her situation.
“have been impeded of living any minimum of dignified life, i.e. no work, no studies, unable to go anywhere because I live in fear of my safety. Can’t pay rent, buy food or pay for security for me. Can’t even buy doors, locks and windows to put in the house.”
Family and friends in Australia have expressed grave fears for her physical and emotional well-being.
Pires has been absolutely pilloried by East Timor’s political leaders.
On March 27, while recovering from his wounds in Darwin, Ramos Horta declared Pires to be the real force behind the February shootings, describing her as Reinado’s “intimate associate and lover” who “manipulated and influenced” his actions.
Pires protested her innocence, acknowledging that she was Reinaldo’s lover but denying she had influenced him.
Later on April 18 Ramos Horta further accused Pires of holding $800,000 for Reinado in Australian bank accounts as part of a conspiracy to destabilise East Timor’s Government.
On June 24, however, the President said he “didn’t have a clue” about the bank account, and senior sources in Dili say the money doesn’t exist.
Despite this, investigations are continuing with the Australian Federal Police conducting extensive inquiries within Australia, both in support of East Timorese investigations and to determine whether any offences against Australian law have been committed.
On July 15 the Federal Police executed a search warrant on the Darwin home of Pires’ friend Teresa de Sousa, looking for evidence including financial records that might relate to an attack on “an internationally protected person” (i.e. a head of state or head of government).
Was Pires at the heart of a conspiracy to kill East Timor’s leaders and carry out a coup?
Former Australian Consul in Dili and long-time East Timor watcher Jim Dunn doesn’t think so.
In a recent article he points out that Reinado was engaged in negotiations with Ramos Horta with a view to securing a pardon and, he hoped, a return to East Timor’s armed forces for himself and his men.
Horta had apparently promised just this but had encountered resistance from the armed forces’ leadership who were reluctant to admit rebels back into their midst.
Apparently learning that his deal with Ramos Horta might unravel, Reinado decided to drive into Dili early on the morning of February 11 detemined to ensure Ramos Horta stuck to their bargain.
Interestingly the rebel major was reportedly carrying US$30,000 with him, possibly as a sweetener for one of the players likely to be involved in any settlement.
Dunn’s assessment, made after extensive discussions with political and other figures in Dili, reads as follows:
“The attack on 11 February was neither a coup attempt nor a plan to assassinate East Timor’s leaders. Almost certainly it was a botched attempt by the rebel leader, Alfredo Reinado, to corner the President and seek further assurances that the proposed surrender conditions, culminating in his pardon, would in fact be carried out.
“The plan went tragically wrong because Reinado’s target was not there. The President was not at home, but out on a very early beach walk. Reinado’s men disarmed the guards and occupied the residence grounds, but two soldiers turned up unexpectedly and shot Reinado and one of his men at what was apparently point blank range.
“Hearing the shooting, Horta hurried back to the residence where he was shot by one of Reinado’s men, a rebel enraged at the killing of their leader.
“It is likely that this angry reaction caused another rebel party to fire on Prime Minister Xanana [Gusmao] some time later. There was no way that these attacks could have resulted in a coup, while the assassination of the two leaders on whose goodwill Alfredo Reinado depended for a pardon, and an end to a dissident existence he had become tired of, made absolutely no sense.”
If Dunn is right, and his assessment is certainly well-informed, it would seem difficult to sustain the more grave charges against Pires, but East Timor’s prosecutor general appears determined to press ahead and find something that can be used against her.
As Dunn notes there are certainly some loose ends, including Reinado’s alleged contacts with Indonesian militia remnants and possibly the Indonesian Special Forces Kopassus. There are also the reported 47 telephone calls Reinado made to and from Australia in the hours before his death.
There are also dark allegations from East Timor’s opposition Fretilin party that the whole episode was a set-up.
As early as March former prime minister and current Fretilin general secretary Mari Alkatiri alleged that the reported assassination attempt on Prime Minister Gusmao was “a cheap fake”. In an interview with Portuguese media, he pointed out photographs taken of Gusmao’s car immediately after the alleged attack showed only two bullet holes. The vehicle later reportedly appeared in public with 16 bullet holes.
Alkatiri raised questions about Reinado’s early morning visitcallat Ramos Horta’s residence.
“How is it that Alfredo Reinado is going to attack the person [Ramos-Horta] who was trying to find an elegant solution for him? Who was attacked first, was it Reinado or the [guards of] President of the Republic? If it was Reinado, according to the first facts, he would have been dead for an hour before. If he was dead before, why did Reinado’s men and those of the President of the Republic stay looking at each other until the President arrived?”
Alkatiri has also highlighted Reinado’s allegations, made publicly shortly before his death, that Gusmao, then serving as President, instigated the 2006 military split that led to the ousting of Alkatiri’s Fretilin administration.
Alkatiri’s allegations have led to speculation that Reinado was set up for assassination by forces close to Gusmao, specifically elements of the East Timorese military.
Certainly Gusmao and those close to him have benefited politically from the events of May 2006 and February 11 this year, but much more evidence would be required to sustain this theory.
As is so often the case in history, a stuff up may be a better explanation than conspiracy, though the latter certainly can’t be ruled out in the often byzantine world of East Timorese politics.
Meanwhile Angelita Pires’ fate hangs in the balance.
While she has received consular assistance from the Australian Embassy in Dili, correspondence seen by The Canberra Times suggests that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade hasn’t gone to any extraordinary lengths to be of assistance.
Pires’ point of contact with the Dili Embassy has been a relatively junior consular officer.
She submitted a request for legal aid on April 23, but for quite some time this appears to have dropped into a bureaucratic black hole.
Although the request was transmitted to the Attorney-General’s Department via the Dili Embassy, more than two months later a senior officer in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told a family friend authorised to represent Pires’ interests that “the Attorney-General’s Department guidelines for taking decisions on individual applications [for financial assistance] are not known to us.” In Angelita’s case, we in DFAT are unaware of the charges she may face and relevant penalties.”
It was another three weeks, and only after energetic representations on her behalf, that First Assistant Secretary, Indigenous Justice and Legal Assistance Division, of the Attorney-General’s Department, Katherine Jones, agreed to allow Pires to access the Special Circumstances (Overseas) legal aid scheme that has assisted other Australians facing grave legal charges abroad including convicted drug traffickers Schapelle Corby and the Bali Nine.
An initial grant of US$64,100 (AU$71,800) has been agreed after Pires provided an estimate of legal costs from her lawyer, Brazilian public defender Zeni Arndt.
Despite the offer of Australian Government financial support, Pires remains deeply concerned she will still be forced to rely on a Timorese Government-appointed lawyer because Arndt will leave East Timor at the end of this month unless the Brazilian Government allows her to stay.
Arndt has been employed as a public defender in East Timor for two years under a bilateral agreement between Brazil and East Timor.
Pires argues with some justification that her the case is “too political” to be defended by a Timorese Government lawyer and she has urged the Australian Government to ask the Brazilian authorities to allow Arndt to remain in East Timor, but no response has been received so far.
For the moment at least Pires remains in a state of legal and personal limbo.
One long-time Australian East Timor activist, Rob Wesley-Smith, has condemned what he calls the “vicious victimisation” of Pires, something that has been in sharp contrast to Ramos Horta’s preparedness to forgive and pardon those responsible for proven human rights abuses in East Timor’s violent past.
“How much is the pressure on the beautiful Australian East Timorese just due to [a] macho society picking on the one colleague of Alfredo who is a woman, and was his lover as well?”
Pires’s fate will depend on the ongoing East Timorese and Australian investigations of the events of February 11 and just how determined the East Timorese leadership are to hold her to account, rightly or wrongly, for her relationship with Reinado.